Contains mild spoilers.
Pandemic, subtitled Fear the Dead has a lot going for it. A gritty, broken and desperately cruel post-apocalyptic world. A complicated and some-what original zombie threat that at times is nail-bitingly scary. A sturdy performance from a cast full of recognisable faces. And a beautiful crisp clean transfer and audio track thanks once again to my European neighbours (though why I'm increasingly reliant on the French, German and Dutch for a Blu-ray version of a film deemed merely DVD worthy for the UK is frustrating to say the least.) Under the helm of director, and co-producer John Suits it's a low budget film that holds it surprisingly together with an energetic first person perspective (POV Point of View) approach that doesn't unravel, and a fearlessness to go outside, with wide, expansive shots and play with huge crowds of extras all at once. It's hard to put a finger on quite why it all doesn't quite work what with all the fine ingredients, and why the final result is when all is said and done, a tad tedious and dare I say quite forgettable.
Rachel Nichols plays Lauren Chase a CDC doctor, separated from her husband and daughter but one of the few who made it into the militarised safe zone. Though more than a little green she's given command of a small team and tasked to head to a school on the far side of Los Angeles to test and hopefully save eighty-nine survivors, and investigate why the crew sent before failed to return. The rest of the crew comprise of Gunner (Mekhi Phifer - Andre in Dawn of the Dead), the captain and muscle, Wheeler (Alfie Allen - Theon Greyjoy) the driver and Denise (Missi Pyle), the navigator.
It's all there; hindering their mission are quite the assortment of increasingly desperate and surprisingly well organised survivors, hordes of semi-psychotic crazies, and full blown terrifying zombie-demons you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. Each stop on the groups little tour of downtown LA is full of suspense, action and ultimately maiming and killing, and yet it's also all rather derivative with much of its punch tamed by an aura of invincibility that seems to follow Dr Chase and troupe like a contrived guiding hand. Our heroes are crept up on, grabbed and jumped; and yes I know, small spoiler, they don't all survive, but watching wave after wave of crazy ultra-violent mad men and women chase, surround and swarm the group only for them to yet again make it clear by the skin of their teeth tests credulity and reduces the intensity fat too easily and far too early.
Then there's the infected. Suits really fleshes out a city in turmoil and the multi-faceted zombie threat; yet combined with the seemingly predetermined danger, and their varying contradictions, the many encounters which to begin with are pumped and explosive, soon deteriorate to feel rather forced, and even bewildering. The narrative too suffers from questionable decision making; none more so than going to all the trouble of presenting a dead city with empty streets full of carnage, and a desperate last ditch attempt to find some, any survivors; then suddenly having them drive past swatches of homeless vagrants; one of whom I swear was drinking coffee, with not a mention that they should perhaps stop and enquire how they were doing?
A lot of thought and effort has gone into the films zombie infection, fleshing it out with depth and subtlety. Rather than a generic The Walking Dead binary position Suits has contrived a five phase degenerating condition and made it central to the narrative. It starts rather safely with Level 1 and flu like symptoms and Level 2 and haemorrhaging, before level 3 and black necrotic blood, diminished mental capacity, confusion, and enough extreme aggression to fashion the threat needed for all this to be a thing. But it's levels 4 and 5 where things get interesting. Just when things looked like they couldn't get any worse level 3 patients suddenly go into stasis, hibernating with an extremely low heart rate. Then it's level 5 after some god awful demonic transmutation and it's bonies from Warm Bodies or the vamp-zombies from I Am Legend, and utterly inhuman and genuinely terrifying. The bulk of the action involves the group evading and combating the infected pre this final mutation; they're varying positioned crazy and confused; some desperate for aid, others increasingly violent and random, with even an odd bit cannibalism I think shoe-horned in as some clumsy zombie homage. They're all good; well presented and perfectly choreographed but I would have liked to have seen the level 5's a bit more prominently positioned and introduced a little earlier as their impact certainly elevates the film and once introduced it's hard to go back.
Pandemic has a lot going for it but ultimately struggles because of a few small decisions and characters that offer little to no reason to either empathise with or get behind. Also, John Suits, having managed to do the hard bit and get the first person camera view point to actually work, possibly over eggs it, with scenes that seem overly contrived to take advantage of the success, and as mentioned a zombie threat that gets too close too often only to impossibly be beaten back. An awfully bleak world, an apocalyptic shit-storm; there's certainly a place for films that truly paint the end of the world in a manner where there's no silver lining and it's good to see directors and writers shun the current, and cheap trend to align zombies with lighthearted and flippant. A high-octane zombie horror that's not afraid to bare its teeth, and definitely worth seeking out for a throwaway evening; but also struggles to ultimately hold it together or stand out - 6/10.